Is This An Unusual Musical Skill?

Though I have never had any formal musical training I seem to have a good memory for music.

For example, if you play almost any major classical musical work from the 19th century, I can probably name the piece and the composer. If I can’t do that I can probably make a good guess at the composer.

My family members have often observed this phenomenon. After someone turns on a car radio to a classical music station in the midst of a piece, I can usually name it within seconds. If I can’t do so, I can usually come up with a list of two or three pieces and/or composers that almost always contains the correct answer.

I also have the sense, especially when at a concert of chamber music, that I know what is coming next, for at least the next ten seconds or so. I can hear it in my head. And this continues throughout the piece.

This skill is not confined to classical music. I was prompted to write this post while listening to a digital version of an LP by the Pennywhistlers, a women’s group who specialized in folk music of the Balkans. I bought that LP almost forty years ago, after hearing them perform live at Judson Church in Greenwich Village.

I haven’t listened to this record for years, yet as I write this while listening to it, as each song ends I can hear the start of the next song in my head. Most of them are not in English.

Is this an unusual skill? I don’t know, and would appreciate any comments from folks with some insight into this topic.

Due to my lack of training I am unable to make sounds that closely approximate the music. It always comes out as “dum…di…dum..da..da..dum..” and so forth. It sounds right to me, but everyone in hearing range thinks I have gone off my rocker.

I do know of a memorization technique called “chaining,” in which you memorize a sequence of numbers, or words, by first saying the last, then the one before that, and then the one before that, starting from the end, and not from the start, which is the strategy most people use trying to memorize a list.

For example, I once memorized over two hundred digits of pi using chaining in just an hour or so.

Let’s check on this. I did that several decades ago. Here is what I remember now

3.1415926531759824 …

Wikipedia reports


Putting them together:

3.141592653 1759824 … (memory)
3.141592653 58979323846 (reality)

Not great, just nine correct values after the decimal point, but there is some similarity in that I got some digits right, but omitted others; witness my “7598” and the correct “5897.”

By the way, several members of my family are quite musical. My wife learned the piano at an early age and has a beautiful singing voice. Son Mike studied both piano and the clarinet until the age of fifteen, when he then decided to concentrate on the clarinet, and got so good that he made the New York State Band one year.

Daughter Jen is the most musical. I first appreciated she had musical talent a few months after we had been to the Disneyworld in Orlando, during which visit we had taken a ride during which the melody of “It’s a small, small world…” was played about three billion times, or so it seemed. (Just thinking of it hurts my head.)

I observed her trying to play the melody on the piano. She was then about three. Though she had it wrong at first, she duplicated the melody within a few minutes, note for note, at least as best I could tell.

Jen started playing the violin around the age of five. By the time she was in the second grade I can recall hearing the principal announce at a concert that “we will now hear the 5th grade orchestra and a violinist from the second grade.”

Jen went on to become a member of the New York State Orchestra, and played for the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the YSO, for all four of her years at Yale, and led the second violin section for the last three years. She also had the good fortune to have as her teacher at Yale Prof. Wendy Sharp, a skilled teacher who takes on only a handful of students each year who are not music majors. (Jen majored in Spanish.)

She is now a graduate student, but continues to play each week as part of a quartet. The other players are much older; one of them is one of her professors.

Jen also has perfect pitch. I can hum a sound and she can give the note.

Now that our children no longer live at home, I greatly miss hearing them practice, and my wife and I take great pleasure whenever we visit them and can hear them play.

By the way, here is a tip from Mike. If you want your child to make the all-state orchestra, then the instrument of choice is the harp.

Violin players, on the other hand, find it much harder.

But not violists. Everyone loves a viola player, as there are so few of them.

Indeed, one of Jen’s classmates played the viola and was quite good at it. When I complimented her mother, she said she was proud of her daughter’s accomplishments, but she found it hard to hear her practice, as the viola has a much smaller range than the violin, and so sounded quite depressing.

Cost can also be a factor. A good clarinet costs under $2000. There is no limit to the cost of a good violin. One of Jen’s Yale classmates played the piccolo and flute, instruments that can be acquired at modest cost.

Weight can also be a factor. Would you rather have to carry a piccolo or flute to every practice session or concert for your musical life, or lug around a cello or a bass?

By the way, I met the CTO of a school district in North Carolina earlier today, and we had lunch together, along with his superintendent and another attendee I had met while playing with an OLPC.

He said that he started his career as a band director in a school, but when his hearing started to go he moved on to other jobs. Turns out he first engaged with open-source in 1995, and has done a lot with it, though I didn’t get the details as one of the luncheon speakers, a chap from MIT, gave an almost endless talk on OLPC without ever even hoisting one up so the audience could see what it was like. However, we exchanged cards and I plan to talk to the ex band director on my return to New York.

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